Creative Writing MFA: Value vs. Money

The last semester of my MFA program is coming up in two months. I have to submit my final thesis and participate in an oral defense of it. And with graduation in sight, I’m wondering about what/how much I’ve learned these past two years, and if the current format of “the Creative Writing MFA” actually achieves what it claims.

Having a professional writing degree does not give you a professional advantage on the marketplace. Maybe when you try to publish “literary” fiction it does, but most publishers couldn’t care less about that genre (unless you’ve written an award-winner that gets a lot of publicity). Commercial fiction yields more profits and is more often than not written by people who have none to little “literary” education. So many commercial fiction writers are lawyers or doctors or teachers, etc., and started writing while building or after having built other careers. I can’t wake up one morning and say, “I feel like engineering today” but an engineer can wake up one morning and say, “I feel like writing a novel.” What’s unfair is that it’s taken way more seriously, even if the engineer has never written a novel and doesn’t know how.

So I get that universities want to offer “serious” writers a shot at supplementing their incomes by teaching in MFA programs. At the same time, I feel like writers are the wrong people to teach a “professional” degree program that should, somehow, be worth the money spent towards it. If publishers are in a position to evaluate whether or not a written work is any good (and they hold the purse strings), editors and publishers should be more involved in the process of developing working writers. Some universities may claim they do this, but it’s not official. I’m suggesting that it’s made official. Put a publishing professional/consultant on the admissions committee. Do something. Because it’s frustrating to invest $20,000 a year in a degree that has so little value to student success in the publishing world.

I’m lucky in that my motivation for taking the program was more about getting the credential for an arts administration position than to develop my writing skills. If I wanted to improve as a writer through the program, I feel like I would’ve been disappointed. I didn’t learn anything about plotting or character development or theme development or narrative voice. All the assignments were super short and the first draft of my thesis novel was tough to write…because I had no idea what I was doing. Seven revisions later, I’m pleased with it, but my thesis advisor (who’s supposed to meet with me once a month) is only meeting with me every other month, didn’t even finish reading the manuscript before the first meeting (even though she had more than a month to do so), and is more concerned about making some aspects of the manuscript more in line with her own political/cultural views than she is with the structure of the novel (one of the biggest challenges in writing one).

And that’s another thing that’s bothering me. Again, I believe in equality for all as well as universal human rights. But you can’t disappear people with dissenting points of view in fiction. You have to address the fact that people are different. If you turn racist/misogynistic or even religious characters into caricature, it’s a dishonest way to address their ideas and voices, and the impact of their views on our culture and society. But there is a ridiculous amount of pressure on writers now to be a mouthpiece for disseminating very particular values. This reduces both the aesthetic quality of a work (when it becomes too bogged down with socially engineered/self-help style terminology) and also the impact of the work on provoking critical thought. Meaningful fiction should never be a mouthpiece for any particular political or social agenda, only a means by which to examine and explore differing views, but it too often betrays an unapologetic bias these days. Instead of asking hard questions, it offers us too many “easy” answers in language that lacks nuance.

Digressions aside, what does an MFA mean, if it’s not an official qualification to write? It’s an official qualification to teach, sure, but teaching is not writing, and, in fact, stifles the career of some writers who show early promise but are forced to get a teaching position to make ends meet, and then can’t seem to write a book that isn’t set in a university or doesn’t involve academics, putting them out of touch with the rest of the big, wide world. Today’s MFA programs need a massive overhaul if they’re going to stay relevant in the next couple of decades. We need to provide better incentives for students and more career options than a “maybe you’ll get published, but don’t hold your breath.” Combine a writing program with an MBA/Arts Management degree, offer placements with organizations to get work experience in the (literary) arts sector, get more corporate sponsors to donate scholarships for beginning writers (off of a proposal/writing sample rather than just past publishing record), actually have all of us intern with magazines/publishers/film/television writing departments to see the different stages that writing goes through as it transitions into marketable product, make it mandatory for us to participate in book groups where readers react to written works, to volunteer at book launches, get us interning with bookstore management to get a sense of what sells and how bookstores stock inventory, with literary agencies to see how agents build client lists. I’d be happy to pay tuition for a program that offers more opportunities to understand the writing/publishing dynamic than just “I feel” critiques in workshops.

But all of that would mean less real income for the writers who currently teach in MFA programs. So I guess that’s it, huh? The vicious cycle continues…

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